You’ll be stealing crusty, juicy slices straight from the cutting board of this rich and smoky wood-grilled Santa Maria Tri Tip basted in a vibrant mop sauce. Combining a simple, savory spice mix with a bold and herbaceous basting sauce, this California classic will have you clicking your tongs twice and firing up the grill.
Your taste buds will be instantly activated as you slice into this impressive reverse-seared tri tip. Hugged in a blend of aromatic spices and caressed in a bright mop sauce, the straightforward process enhances the deep beefiness of this cut of meat.
Stack it on crusty charred bread, pile it up on a plate, toss it into a tortilla…just make it!
Don’t forget to pair it with Fire Roasted Santa Maria Salsa, a true authentic classic to take this beef to the next level.
Why This Recipe Works
- Easy Process. There is nothing complicated about the method to reverse sear tri tip. This tried and true technique will give you an amazing finished cook every time. The result? A beautiful crust on the exterior and gloriously juicy meat inside.
- Minimal Ingredients. Aside from the tri tip itself you probably already have all of the ingredients to pull this together in your pantry. The basic salt, pepper, and garlic rub is enhanced with a few extras and the mop sauce utilizes the sunny pop of vinegar and tang of Dijon.
- Bold Flavor. Both the spice mix and the mop sauce enhance the deep, rich flavor of the tri tip. Nothing overpowers the beef itself but instead highlights it. The use of hardwood chunks adds that additional mysterious kiss of smoke.
- Tri Tip – This is the king of Santa Maria-style barbecue. This subprimal cut from the bottom sirloin is extremely flavorful. For the best results, you want to pick one between two to three pounds.
- Spice Rub – The basic salt, pepper, and garlic rub is enhanced with the addition of earthy paprika, aromatic onion powder, the slight kick of cayenne, and citrusy but slightly bitter celery seeds. The celery seeds echo the flavor of the charred celery in the Santa Maria Salsa that is served alongside this tri tip.
- Mop sauce – Tangy vinegar, neutral oil, the sharp bite of garlic, and zesty Dijon not only help build the beautiful crust on the tri tip and impart intense savory flavor, but the bundle of herbs used to baste the meat adds an additional layer of fresh, verdant flavor.
- Beef Tallow – Skip the neutral oil and indulge in an even more rich, decadent beef flavor by using beef tallow in your mop sauce. Melt it down first before adding the remaining ingredients.
- Vinegars – Have fun experimenting with different types of vinegar in the mop sauce. Balsamic will add a little sweetness while white wine vinegar will give more of a clean, bright note. You can even use craft vinegar such as citrus or fig.
- Worcestershire Sauce – Skip the salt in the mop sauce and add a splash or two of Worcestershire sauce. This is also in the Santa Maria salsa and pairs well with beef.
- Charcoal Grill – Santa Maria barbecue is traditionally cooked over an open-fire Santa Maria grill. You can easily achieve the same results on any type of charcoal grill. While a charcoal grill is recommended you can also use a gas grill with a wood chip smoking pack, or pellet grill. If using a pellet grill you’ll need to sear the tri tip in either a cast iron skillet, griddle, or sear plate if your pellet grill has one.
- Digital Thermometer – This is non-negotiable. There are two steps to this cooking process. In the first step, the steak cooks indirectly and comes to temp before it is finished off over high heat and a direct sear. You’ll need your digital thermometer in both stages. Check out ThermoWorks
- Hardwood Chunks – Red oak is the traditional choice for Santa Maria-style barbecue but post oak will also work. While this step isn’t totally mandatory it is not only going to help you achieve that authentic Santa Maria style tri tip taste, but it is also just another additional layer of flavor.
How to Make Santa Maria Tri Tip
- Season your tri tip steak. Mix together your spices for the rub and give them a taste. Want it a little spicier? Add more cayenne or black pepper. A little more savory? Give it a little more garlic. This is a big hunk of meat that can take the seasoning. Allow it to sit out and come to room temperature for about twenty minutes.
- Prepare your mop sauce. Add all of the ingredients for the mop sauce to a small saucepan and stir to combine.
- Create your herb brush. Skip the mop brush and build a bundle of herbs to baste your meat in. Not only will they impart even more flavor, but it makes for one less thing to wash. Pick hardy herbs such as rosemary, sage, and thyme, and then add more delicate herbs such as parsley and oregano. Wrap their stems tightly and tie with butcher’s twine. You can also secure them to the handle of a wooden spoon or even your tongs if desired.
- Prepare your grill for 2-zone cooking. Once your charcoal is ready, bank it to one side of the grill to create a hot zone and a cool zone. Add wood chunks to your charcoal if using. Make sure that your grates are clean.
You will want your grill between 250-275°F so adjust your vents accordingly.
- Let your tri tip smoke. Place the tri tip on the cool, indirect side of the grill and close the lid. You’ll want to position the steak with the fattest end facing toward the charcoal and hot zone. We’re going for temperature, not so much time here.
You want your tri tip to cook to between 115-118°F which will be around 40-60 minutes undisturbed.
- Sear your tri tip. Lift the lid of your grill and allow the air to circulate and heat up the charcoal. This is the time to go get your mop sauce and basting brush. Place the tri tip on the hot side of the grill. Allow the first side to sear for 45 seconds and then give it a flip.
Immediately baste your tri tip once you flip it with the herb brush. Continue this process of flipping and basting until you’ve reached your target temperature of 128-130°F for medium rare.
- Let it rest! As much as the glorious crust and smoky, aromatic perfume will be beckoning you, this step is vital. Let your tri tip steak rest for about 15 minutes. This will allow the juices to redistribute and give you that juicy bite you crave.
- Rest your meat. I’m going to repeat myself here, because this step is SO important with this cut of steak. Resting is important for both before grilling your tri tip and also once it has grilled. Allowing your meat to come to room temperature will not only give you a more even cook, but it will also allow the rub to adhere and begin to permeate the steak. Once your steak comes off the grill let it rest so all of those delicious juices can redistribute into the meat and not wind up all over your cutting board.
- Make a basting brush from a bundle of herbs. This adds another layer of flavor and will totally impress your friends and family. Any herbs you have on hand will work. Tie the ends tightly with butcher’s twine to make it easy to handle. If they don’t seem sturdy enough you can also tie the bundle to the handle of a wooden spoon.
- Keep flipping and basting. Ignore that old advice of flip once. You want to continually flip and baste to build up a beautiful crust and allow it to finish cooking evenly. This prevents any one side from overcooking.
- Use both sides of your grill. If your steak seems like it’s getting too hot too quickly when you’re searing it, move it back over to the cooler zone to prevent it from burning. Let it cool down and then move it back over to direct heat. Use your intuition and don’t let it burn!
Frequently Asked Questions
Santa Maria tri tip is always served with Santa Maria salsa. The official copy-written menu from the Santa Maria County Chamber of Commerce also includes pinquito beans, a green salad, and grilled French bread dipped in butter. Go ahead and pile slices of this up on a sandwich and top with the salsa!
This is a generous piece of meat. While there is cayenne in the rub it only adds a small layer of heat. The predominant flavor is pure, and rich beefiness followed by smoke and savory, bold flavors.
Tri tip is the classic cut of beef for Santa Maria-style barbecue. If you can not find it sirloin can be used. This is a leaner cut of beef so look for one that is more marbled if you can. Use the same guide for temperature but adjust the time accordingly.
- 2–3 lb Tri-Tip steak
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Bundle of fresh herbs; thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, etc.
- Season the tri-tip steak. Mix the rub ingredients together, taste, and adjust as needed. Season all sides of the steak generously and allow it to sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes prior to grilling.
- Prepare the mop sauce. Mix the ingredients together in a small saucepan. Bundle the herbs together if using and tie them together with butcher’s twine to make a flavorful brush.
- Prepare the grill for 2-zone cooking at around 250-275°F. Light the coals and set them on one side of the grill, leaving the other side without direct heat. Add chunks of hardwood if using to the coals.
- Smoke the tri-tip steak. Place the steak on the cool side of the grill away from the coals. Make sure the thickest part is the closest to the fire so that the thinner side doesn’t overcook. Allow the steak to cook with the lid closed for about 40-60 minutes until it reaches around 115-118°F.
- Lift the lid and sear the steak. Allow the coals to start burning hotter by lifting the lid off the grill. Get the basting pan ready with the brush. Move the steak to the hot side of the grill and allow it to sear for 45 seconds. Flip the steak and immediately baste it with the sauce. Continue to repeat this process until the steak reaches your target temperature, about 128-130°F for medium rare. NOTE: If the steak is searing too quickly, move it to the cooler side for a minute to slow down the cooking. It’s best to take your time rather than burn the outside. Move it back over the heat and continue searing when ready.
- Allow the steak to rest before slicing. Give it about 15 minutes to rest at room temperature. This will allow the juices to redistribute. Slice against the grain and serve.
- You want to continually flip and baste to build up a beautiful crust and allow it to finish cooking evenly. This prevents any one side from overcooking.
- Prep Time: 20
- Cook Time: 60
- Category: Beef & Lamb
- Method: Grilling
- Cuisine: BBQ
Keywords: tri tip, Santa Maria, reverse seared, smoked beef, grilled beef, tri tip steak